Digital Hedgetrimming

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art  determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence

The previous is a quote from Benjamin’s essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It captures quite succinctly some of the thoughts I have on the pervasion of images in our world, and it forms the foundation of Baudrillard’s thoughts on our collective separation from reality. What a reproduced image does, like a photograph placed on the internet, is strips it of context. Furthermore the image can be manipulated to further imply a truth that isn’t there. To me, augmented reality represents the strongest but also the least subtle changes in how we view the world we’re in. Although it has the effect of literally changing what you see, we haven’t been seeing what’s really there for quite some time, arguably since the beginning of culture. 

Shaw Woods Primary School seems to think augmented reality is as important as I do, and they’ve started using software called Aurasma. The software works by using a mobile device (like an iPad) and taking a picture of something. Then, you attach a video, sound byte, or image (e.g. an aura) to the image; and when the image is viewed through the device, the aura comes on-screen. Is this something to be lamented? Celebrated? Is a future of augmented reality a dystopia? I really don’t think so. Although the tools are rudimentary, I think that knowing how to think the way that these kids are learning will be increasingly valuable. A teacher of mine said that the next Rembrandt won’t be a painter, and I think that he’s right.

I’m not exactly sure what he meant by Rembrandt (perhaps a culturally influential artificer), but the future of creation is digital. Maybe I’m too embedded, maybe Benjamin would sputter and hiss at this post. What do we stand to lose by relenting to the digital embrace? He speaks of an aura that is lost when objects are placed online, and I think he’s right. I’m not a fan of Pollock on a screen, in person is another story. Furthermore what is an image of a tree to the real one? But what Benjamin didn’t consider, and couldn’t have, is a digital aura, an image made on a computer, destined for the web.

Philip K. Dick wrote a short story called “War Game,” (on page 136) although the following passage is not the main thrust of the story, I found it compelling nonetheless.

Opening the box, he laid out the costume. The fabric had a gray, amorphous quality. What a miserably bad job, he thought. It only vaguely resembled a cowboy suit; the lines seemed unformed, hesitant. And the material stretched out of shape as he handled it…

“I don’t get it,” he said to Pinario. “This won’t sell.”

“Put it on,” Pinario said. “You’ll see.”

What follows is a humorous passage where a grown-man becomes fully enveloped in the fantasy that he’s a cowboy. When he’s forcibly removed from the suit, he experiences a sort of sobering depression; the world is gray by comparison. I feel that this is the case already, augmented reality isn’t the beginning, it may be the nail in the coffin. Once we have it, can we live without it? For those in the transitory period it can feel uncomfortable to think about needing a new thing to function. It makes me wonder if people balked at movable type.

The internet means change for us. So do smartphones, augmented reality, and so forth. People wonder if things like Philip K Dick’s story will come to pass. Shaw Woods School is preparing for it, Benjamin feared it. But to say that the change that it brings is bad requires some idea of what is good. Without it change is just change, and I really don’t know which direction we’re moving in.


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